Monday, October 11, 2010

Reboot's Study of Romans, Part VI: Gentiles and the New Covenant (Rom 11:13-15:21)

I previously had included this in part V, but Paul so clearly differentiates between his prior section (written to Jews) and this section (to Gentiles), that I thought I should separate them as well. It also seems to me, now that I near completion of the study, that chapters 12-15 are properly seen as part of Paul’s address to the Gentiles, rather than a general statement to both Jews and Gentiles. Romans 11:13 and 15:15 seem to be clear literary markers as the beginning and end of a new section, so I will treat them this way.

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles.

Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

First, Paul reminds we Gentiles to keep our appropriate place in mind. Salvation was meant to be from the Jews. They are the tree that has been cultivated, clipped, and fertilized by God for this moment in time—the coming of the Christ. But some of the branches did not believe, and were broken off. In their place, God has taken some of we Gentiles from our wild trees (lacking the Law and centuries of worshipping God) and grafted us in their place.

But from that can come arrogance—the belief that we are the “true Israel”, and that the Israelites are foolish. Paul is very firm in telling us not to be arrogant. We are not the “basis” of Christianity—Jewish Christians are. The Jewish Christians are our root, and we are only as holy as the root is holy. We do not belong on this olive tree, so we should be thankful to be included, not arrogant or feeling as though we somehow ‘deserve’ it.

Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Paul furthers the analogy of the olive trees, saying that if God can reject His chosen people for lack of belief, He will do the same to us. He is severe to those who do not believe, but kind to those who are faithful. And those who are unfaithful, if they become faithful again, will be added back to His tree.

Now I do not want to pass this over, because it is very important. It cuts to the heart of a very contentious issue—the “security of the believer”, as it is sometimes known. Specifically, the question is this: once you have been saved by God—once you have professed your belief—is your salvation eternally secure? Or can you later “lose” this salvation?

Some denominations hold that, “once saved, always saved.” There is nothing that you can do to separate yourself from God’s grace and glory, as we heard Paul say in Part IV of this series. Other denominations say that if you sin, you are separated from God and must be re-saved. Others say that if you sin, you must confess them in order to be made right; if you (being saved) die with unconfessed sin you do not go to hell, but you must be purified before obtaining heaven. Still others say that some sins are grave enough to undo your salvation, but lesser sins are not.

The truth is somewhat a combination of all of these.

Let us start with the first point: can sin as a general rule of thumb separate us from God's salvation? Decidedly, no. Paul makes that quite clear, as you can see in Part IV of this study—there is no one who can accuse us before God, because our faith in Christ imparts His righteousness upon us.

But can we say that there is never a situation in which we are saved and then still rejected by God? No, we cannot say that. But it is not due to ordinary sin. The key texts are the one quoted directly above, as well as Mark 3:28-30, Matt 12:30-32, Luke 12:8-10, and Hebrews 6:4-8. What is referred to in these passages is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or falling away. Specifically, this is referring to apostasy, as is made more clear in Hebrews 6. If you have been a believer in Christ, and then later reject belief in Him as Messiah, then that sin cannot be forgiven. (Note that the unbelief is in Jesus as Messiah. The Gospels quoted above refer to the situation where Pharisees were attributing Jesus’ miracles to the work of the devil. They obviously did believe that Jesus existed, as they were talking to Him! They also believed that He performed miracles. But they denied that He was the Christ. Thus, their sin was that of unbelief.)

The Gospelic accounts make this a broad, more general rule: if you do not have faith in Christ, then you are not saved. Period. So if you die an atheist or agnostic or non-believer in Jesus as Messiah, then you will be judged at the judgment seat by your works (and found lacking). This is true regardless of whether you once believed or not.

The logic here is sound, as well. If it is faith that causes God to overlook your sins, then the lack of faith will not cause God to overlook your sins. Faith as a youth, however, would not override a later rejection of faith.

So based upon the above texts, that is what I would have to conclude. Once you have been saved, your sins (past, present, and future) will be forgiven—your righteousness is based upon your relationship to God, not your personal works. However, the Christian can in fact “lose” that salvation if, at a later date, he no longer believes in Jesus as Messiah (or God as Creator).

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, "The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins." As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

This passage has some potential theological dynamite in it. Follow the logic here. God hardened part of Israel from forgiveness, and it will remain so until all of the elect Gentiles gain their salvation. And in this way all Israel will be saved. They are enemies of the Gospel, so that the Gospel could spread to Gentiles. “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. …they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Now this passage seems to be indicating a special salvation for Israel. It seems as though Paul is saying that—after the Gentiles have taken their seats at the table—all of those Israelites who are descended from Abraham will be part of the “elect” as well, due to their past covenant with God. In other words, the plain reading of this text, in context, seems to me to be saying that the Gentiles are saved by faith, and that after this process is complete, all of Israel’s descendants will be saved as well. Is this what Paul means? I fear such a statement is beyond me. But Paul does call it a “mystery”, and a judgment which is “unsearchable”. This would of course have a major impact on theology, and my assumption is that I am simply misreading it. Obviously, I would be thrilled if this turns out to be true! For all of God’s chosen people plus all of those who have faith to be united with Him forever would be a mighty mercy indeed. But something about it—which I can’t put my finger on—tells me inside that I have missed something here. Perhaps more to come later on this, but for now I will set this aside for wiser minds than mine to contemplate.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Now when Paul wrote to the Jewish Christians of Rome, little needed to be said about behavior—the Law let them know quite clearly what was expected of them. But the Gentiles were from all manner of pagan background. Some of them were probably used to sexual orgies in their temples, others to animal sacrifice, others to emperor-cult-worship. And then Paul just got through explaining that God would forgive them if they sinned, but that this was no excuse for sin. So here, Paul spends a great deal of time clarifying for the Gentile Christians exactly how their new lifestyles as disciples of the Christ should look.

He starts out by referencing sacrifice. All pagan religions at the time dealt in some form of sacrificial forgiveness—if you were unclean before your god, then you could sacrifice an animal to make you back in right standing. So what do Christians do for forgiveness of sin? What is our sacrifice? Paul says that it is our bodies—a living sacrifice. He says that this is our logikos latreia—our logical ministry to God. Personal purity is what Paul lists as our primary service to God—not evangelizing, or how we sing on Sunday morning, or serving in church ministry.
Paul tells us that God’s transformation of our minds should be applied to analyzing our own lives and trying to grow toward God in perfection. Do not think more highly of yourself than you should, he warns—you are not perfect and still have sin. But look at your sins honestly (“sober judgment”), and try to grow closer to Christ.

Further, Paul says that as we serve God in our piety, we should use the gifts that God gave us for His service. He then lists several gifts here. I do not believe (as some do) that this is supposed to be some formula or complete list of the gifts and graces of God. This list includes everything from leadership to generosity to doctrinal instruction to lifting the spirits of mourners—in other words, Paul says, we each are given gifts that we can use to do God’s work, and we should use them.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I love the phrase, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Here Paul really nails down that we are to love everyone, plain and simply. Pray for others, and give blessings to those who persecute you. Be willing to mingle with all people. Live in harmony and peace with other people. Do not seek out vengeance, but let God deal with that.
One thing that really stands out in opposition to our current American mindset is the concept of “repay no one evil for evil…so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…never avenge yourselves.” I think of terrorism as perhaps one of the few true “enemies” existing against modern Americans, and wonder how God will view our attitudes toward them. Did any of us after 9/11 (myself included!) offer forgiveness? Did we pray that God would handle vengeance on His own? Did we—claiming to be a Christian nation, mind you—choose that we would do everything in our power to live peaceably with them and bless them? Or did we rush out by the thousands to join the military, to impress upon our Congress the importance of fighting back against someone, anyone, Muslim? And now, nearly a decade removed, what mindset do we have? Does our approach to foreign policy mimic what Paul says the Christian lifestyle is in this passage? And if not, must we stop considering American a Christian nation?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Here, Paul tells us to be subject to governing authorities. Now a bit of background is illuminating here. The Roman government had instituted the largest-scale peace in the history of the world (even to this day) in the Pax Romana. There were still riots and skirmishes and even some very bloody wars, but on the whole this period was marked as much more peaceful. They achieved this peace in the same way that many Republicans desire--peace through superior firepower. But that angered many Jews. Jews felt that the kingdom God promised them, was being overrun by the Romans; even worse, the Roman paganism was offensive to the Jewish religion. Thus, they expected the Messiah and His followers to overthrow Rome, and put their freedom back in its proper place. In addition, they found it horribly wrong to have to pay taxes to Rome, which is not in God’s Law.

But Paul tells them here that God put Rome in control for a reason. (The same Rome which would execute Paul just a few years later!) Paul says that God puts the kings in civil authority for civil matters of justice. So we need to be honorable to them, live justly, and pay our taxes as we are required.

Now clearly, Paul did not believe that this means that we must sacrifice our morals to appease the government. He never participated in the imperial cult-worship, either. And he spoke boldly against the paganism which was required worship by the Roman government.

No, what Paul is saying here is speaking out against revolution, against rioting, against tax evasion, against breaking laws insofar as you can avoid those things. Follow the laws of the land, he says, so that people will see that you are abiding by the laws of your nation. But of course, do not sacrifice your morality to do so.
We are blessed to live in America. I alluded earlier to the fact that I do not really see how we can consider ourselves a “Christian” nation—a religious one, sure; a pro-Christian nation, absolutely; a just nation, to be certain. But we are built upon Enlightenment principles, not Christian ones. So let us be clear on that. That said, we are nonetheless blessed, because there are very few laws that we actually have a moral problem with, based upon Paul’s exhortation for Christian ethics.
Is abortion (which is legal in the US) wrong? Absolutely. But we are not required to get abortions, so the Christian conscience is clear. If homosexual marriage becomes legal, is that wrong? Yes. But we are not required to marry in a way that we do not agree with, so our conscience remains clear. Is divorce wrong? Without question. But we are not required to divorce, and thus our Christian ethics are not violated. The key point is that though our laws allow things which are unchristian, they do not require them. And thus we find ourselves in a much easier spot that Paul’s first-century readers.

Really, I am hard-pressed to find a way in which we Christians, by adhering to our laws of the country, would violate our conscience. The only thing I can think of as a possibility might be the Draft into the military. Based upon the prior passage, one could argue that the Christian would be wrong in taking a life for any situation—vengeance, military service, under orders, etc. Some great Christians have agreed with this pacifist view (such as Tertullian), and some great Christians have disagreed with it (such as CS Lewis). I will not pass judgment here. But that is the only case in which I could see an issue arising. And even in the case that you are a pacifist Christian and the draft occurs, you could report for the draft as required by the government, but make it clear that you (for religious reasons) will not take someone else’s life. You could still serve as a medic, or a chaplain, or an administrator, or an engineer, or in a hundred other jobs. Probably wouldn’t be much use as an infantryman, though.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God." So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me." For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name." And again it is said, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." And again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him." And again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope."

This rather long passage is a very useful one, particularly in light of the great spread of modern Christianity. Because we are in different denominations and different cultural regions, we will see things differently from time to time. Some Christians in the Bible Belt (where I am from) are teetotalers—to them, taking a drink of alcohol is a definite sin. Now other Christians will point to the many Biblical references to our holy forefathers drinking, and say that it is no big deal to drink as long as you do not become drunk. (Frankly, I agree with the latter stance.) Other Christians are vegetarians while I personally love a nice ribeye. Other Christians eat only organic foods, while I prefer decidedly wormless apples. Some worship on Saturday as the Sabbath, others on Sunday. Some have salty language, others see filthy mouths as a separation from God. Christians in India may still retain a cultural feeling of uncleanness by eating a hamburger.

Now to begin with, it is interesting that Paul considers those who set up rules governing what they eat or drink as weaker than other Christians. He doesn't see their asceticism or sacrifice as a strength, but a weakness. The reason is because it is a law "above" the Gospel. As I have said many times before, grace frees us from the Law, and our first action is to institute new, Christian laws. To be truly free is frightening.

In the end, what Paul is talking about here are what I always refer to as the “debatable” things of Christianity. And you know my motto—“in debatable things, liberty.” You should do what your conscience tells you to do. But Paul here tells us that if we truly love our brother, we will be careful not to offend them or cause them to sin. He says that if someone thinks drinking is a sin, and we drink in front of them, then one of two things will happen: either they will think we are not Christians, or they will drink and (since they believe it is sinful) they have sinned. So Paul says that if we really love one another, we will watch out to make sure others don’t stumble on account of us.

He tells those who have these sort of “Christian laws” (like no drinking) not to judge others who live a freer lifestyle—let God handle that. He also tells those with the freer lifestyle not to partake when in the company of “weaker Christians” who have these laws built to themselves. For as he says, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”

In other words…when in Rome, do as the Romans do. If you are out to eat with a group of Christian teetotalers, do not order wine! (Or, if you truly love others, do not order wine when at a restaurant where you might run into Christian teetotalers.) If you are eating with Christian vegetarians, then for their sake, eat what they eat. (I shudder to even type that sentence. I need a burger now.) If you are eating with someone from India, eat chicken instead of hamburger. If you are around most Christians, do not curse even if you think it is okay.

Do not let the work of God be destroyed, and God’s church be divided, because you want a steak or a glass of wine or a hamburger. Love and respect your fellow Christians more than that.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, "Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand."

In summarizing this section, Paul says that he is confident that his Gentile brothers were good and knowledgeable and capable of teaching themselves these very things. But since he is God’s minister to the Gentiles, Paul wrote this section as a reminder of how Gentiles should live in Christ Jesus. He tells them that he has been preaching this word all the way from Jerusalem to the Gentiles in Illyricum—a Roman province in southeastern Europe, just east of the Italian peninsula. He further says that his goal is to continue to preach Christ to those who have never been introduced to the gospel.

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